Friday 25 February 2022

A Microscopic Contribution to Larkin Studies

 I'm reading Philip Larkin's first novel, Jill, published in 1946 and subsequently dismissed by its author as a piece of juvenilia best forgotten.  A harsh judgment, I think, but from what I've read so far it it is certainly not in the same league as his wonderful second novel, A Girl in Winter. The edition of Jill I'm reading (a Faber reissue of 1975) includes an amusing Introduction by Larkin, apparently written for a 1963 reissue, sharing his memories of wartime Oxford and the friends he made there, including of course Kingsley Amis. When Jill came out, Amis wrote in a letter that 'he had enjoyed it very much, adding that its binding reminded him of Signal Training: Telegraphy and Telephony, or possibly Ciceronis Orationes. Later he reported that he had seen a copy in a shop in Coventry Street between Naked and Unashamed and High-Heeled Yvonne.' But to my minuscule (and quite possibly not even original) contribution to Larkin studies...
  An early section of the novel looks back to the sixth-form years of its working-class (unheroic) hero, a scholarship lad from 'Huddlesford', who is being tutored, reluctantly and without much expectation of success, by a somewhat disaffected teacher called Mr Crouch. Here is Mr Crouch restoring order in the classroom...
'The faint hum of the classroom as the industrious worked and the idlers idled came suddenly to his ears, and he brought the flat of his hand down with a sharp smack on the desk.
  Everybody looked up.
  "There is too much chatter at the moment," he remarked evenly. "It will be very unpleasant for anyone I catch talking. Bleaney, come up here."'
Yes, Bleaney. There's a surname that must have lingered in Larkin's mind, returning to the surface as the curious but somehow appropriate name of the former tenant in that bleak poem, Mister Bleaney...

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits — what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways —
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

'The Bodies' refers to the section of a car factory where the bodies are assembled, though of course it carries other resonances in the poem. 'Plugging at the four aways' is a reference to that former national pastime, the football pools, 'aways' being away wins. The two closing stanzas of the poem are something of a tour de force, unfolding as one long sentence expressing a dread that is surely the narrator's own and wondering if Mr Bleaney felt it too, only to conclude with a shrugging 'I don't know'. Indeed. 

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